The history of garden design using Australian native plants (1788 – now)


The earliest documented arrivals at what was then known as Terra Australis were the Dutch and the French. None of the early explorers settled here, but the French took many of the native plants and animals back to France. The Empress Josephine’s garden, Malmaison, was full of these Australian native plant species and also had a few of the animals. 

Stuart illustrated the types of gardens from 1790 to the present day with projections of maps, photographs, paintings and diagrams,etc. The reasons for the various styles covered the fashion at the time, function and the built elements. The earliest illustrations of gardens were those of the first governors, John Hunter and Lachlan Macquarie. These showed the selection of native trees and tree-like shrubs, planted in formal gardens, full of ornamental exotics. 

From early in the 19th century, there were plantings of Australian native trees in the main streets of cities and the larger country towns. 

From the 1820s, there was a craze for conifers and the most popular were the Araucarias, Callitris spp. and Podocarpus spinulosa. The next group to capture the public imagination were the ferns and from the 1840s to 1870s many ferneries were established in public gardens and the large private gardens. Charles Moore, director of the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, for 50 years, from 1848, was passionate about Australian native figs and selected Ficus macrophylla, F. rubiginosa and F. hillii to be planted extensively, throughout the RBG. He supervised the planting of figs at Sydney University and in large public parks. 

From the 1870s to 1890s hundreds of public parks in all the major Australian cities were planted with Australian native species, largely through their being chosen for their characteristics, superior to exotics. Rookwood, the World’s largest cemetery, was extensively planted with Australian native trees. 

A 19th-century garden designer, William Guilfoyle, introduced curves into Australian private gardens, to get away from the previous rigid straight lines of English and European classical design. Sydney artists, notably, Margaret Preston, Margaret Olley and Ellis Rowan, drew public attention to Australian native flowers, with their beautiful and popular paintings. 

In the Federation era, there was a growth in the output of books on Australian native plants, by writers in Sydney and Melbourne. More and more, suburban gardens incorporated native plants with attractive flowers. A more left-field choice of Australian native trees in Sydney’s North Shore was to capture the dust that arose from unsealed roads. 

After the 1914-1918 War, memorial gardens were established and along with the traditional Rosemary bushes, many of these gardens had Australian native shrubs. The early garden guides of the 1920s had sections on Australian native plants. 

Two authors who popularised native plants were Thistle Y Harris and May Gibbs. May Gibbs’s books, portraying native plants as personalities, are still popular, today! From the 1930s architects started to choose Australian native plants in private and public gardens. Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion were the first in Australia to start using the title “landscape architect”. Notable landscape architects were the Griffins, Edna Walling, Paul Sorensen and Jocelyn Brown. There was extensive use of native plants by these people. In the mid to late 20th century, well-known garden designers were Betty Maloney and her sister Jean Walker, Ellis Stones, Kath Carr, Paul Thompson and Bruce McKenzie. The Burnley Campus at the University of Melbourne was planted almost exclusively with native plants. 

Many people from our APS group, have visited the local Waterfall Cottage garden, at Bayview, with its lovely setting in the coastal rainforest. Stuart showed us a quirky nod to the importance of local trees at Mona Vale, with a footpath making a circuitous route around eucalypts. 

Image: WA Historic Garden Society. TV garden programmes have popularised Australian native plants and there have been inspirational gardens of great beauty, using native plants in difficult sites, such as windy coastal headlands and alpine regions.

In recent years, there has been a growth in varieties of native plants, especially of flowering characteristics and of hardiness and of dwarf form, to suit small gardens and balconies. Native plant use in rooftop gardens is now popular. 

Stuart has now accumulated eighty pages of Australian native plants, Hibbertia scandens translated into the names given to them by many of the First Nations peoples. After the presentation, there were a number of books, pertinent to the presentation, set out for our perusal.

Report by Penny Hunstead